The Relevance of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism to Advaita Vedanta, Part I

This the first of a three-part series discussing the relevance of Kant’s philosophy to Advaita. Kant-CPR

Immanuel Kant published the first edition of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, with an extensively rewritten second edition appearing in 1787. Between those editions he also published a shorter “easier” introduction to his philosophy, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783). With the later appearance of The Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and The Critique of Judgement (1790), Kant had articulated a complete system of philosophy of incredible depth and complexity, wholly original and unique in its solution to the age-old problems of reason, ethics, and logic. So great was the importance of this Prussian professor, we may justifiably think in terms of pre-Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy. Many have disagreed with his conclusions and offered refutations on one level or another, but all who have come after Kant have been required to address him.

Kant was the first Western philosopher to fully take into account the subjective aspect of knowing, the forms of intuitive understanding we bring to our cognitions, before sensation or perceptual input. As we investigate objects that appear to our perception, not only can we not get out of our own way and truly view the objects as “things-in-themselves,” it’s actually worse than that. According to Kant, the objects are only perceivable as such because we have pre-applied space, time, and causality to our knowing of them. He is not saying there are no external objects, no things-in-themselves. This is not the idealism of Bishop Berkeley, in which everything is made dependent on mind and the existence of external objects is denied. Rather, Kant is saying we can only see our own representations of objects, and that we partially form those representations ourselves, together with whatever sensory data we may be gathering. We cannot see the things-in-themselves, separate from a knowing subject.

The above is an extremely rough sketch of just one facet of Kant’s deep analysis. I am by no means an expert on Kant’s philosophy, nor even a professional philosopher, and do not claim to fully understand all the intricate nuances of his elaborate thought castle. Having struggled diligently through the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomena, however, and having found great value in having done so, it seemed appropriate to share a few insights from Kant’s work that might be of potential benefit to students of Advaita. While there is no direct mention by him of the Upanishads or the Vedas, as there is by Schopenhauer, Kant’s discoveries about a priori knowledge, his distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, and his views on space and time are all noteworthy in that they support the Advaita teaching rather than conflict with it. I do not mean to infer that everything Kant wrote is consistent with Vedanta, only that there are correspondences and parallels worthy of study for those interested in such matters.

A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge

A full treatment will of course be impossible in the space of a brief article, so I will focus only on a few key points, beginning with Kant’s analysis of the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge:

“In what follows, therefore, we shall understand by a priori knowledge, not knowledge independent of this or that experience, but knowledge absolutely independent of all experience. Opposed to it is empirical knowledge, which is possible only a posteriori, that is, through experience. A priori knowledge is called pure if nothing empirical is mixed in with it. Thus the proposition, for example, ‘Every alteration has its cause,’ is an a priori proposition; yet it is not pure, because alteration is a concept which can be derived only from experience.” CPR, p. 38: (B3)

Kant called his work a Critique of Pure Reason, because he was examining through critical analysis the faculties of reason as they apply a priori, hence “pure” in that nothing empirical (i.e., sensory) is involved. Later, he came to write the Critique of Practical Reason, to apply his findings to the sphere of functional or moral reasoning. But the masterful first critique is devoted to explicating the underlying structure or scaffolding of the ratiocinative faculty itself. Kant’s first critique is also an intensive analysis of the Subject and its relationship to perceived Objects. He takes the unity of consciousness as primary, and this ties in with his notion of a priori knowledge, including space and time as intuitive forms of knowing — points we will explore below.

It is important to understand that Kant’s notion of pure a priori knowledge does not entail innate ideas present in the mind before experience. Rather, we are talking about knowledge that is not derived from experience at all. This is the case even if this a priori knowledge only becomes manifest with the occasions of experience.

“But although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises from experience. For it is quite possible that even our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions, and of that which our own faculty of knowledge (sensible impressions merely prompting it to do so) supplies from itself, an addition which we do not distinguish from that raw material until long practice has made us attentive to it and rendered us capable of separating one from the other.” CPR, p. 37: (B1)

Here, in the meticulous language of a professor of philosophy writing in the late 18th century, is the kernel of an independent derivation of the seer-seen discrimination discussed by Shankara in the early 8th century. I will amplify on this in the final section discussing Kant’s phrase, the transcendental synthetic unity of apperception, where I will argue that he is essentially talking about Atman. Before I can make that case to the reader, however, we’ll first need a closer look at Kant’s unique terminology and ground-breaking analysis.

Further on the matter of a priori knowledge, consider that no subjective observer can escape from the mechanism by which it receives impressions. Any perceptions come pre-packaged with time and space all woven together as a compound of synthesized knowledge. I believe we are therefore justified in treating Kant’s notion of a priori knowledge as roughly equivalent to avidyA, Ignorance, as propounded in the Advaita teachings. We are therefore talking about mAyA again, in the form of the hardwired ignorance that comes automatically with the point of view of being a separate person. In the words of the great scholar of mythology, Joseph Campbell:

“Also accepted is the recognition which Schopenhauer seems to have been the first to have realized, of this Kantian concept of the a priori forms of sensibility and categories of logic as practically identical with the Hindu-Buddhist philosophy of Maya.” – The Masks of God, Volume IV, Creative Mythology, p. 338.

In practical terms, the Critique of Pure Reason is an extended analysis of the limitations of the Subjective point-of-view. This is one of the key reasons I believe Kant’s work to be of relevance to students of Advaita Vedanta. In his own terminology, he is writing about why the jIva can never “transcend” itself and get to the actual thing-in-itself as it exists objectively, that is, can never observe Reality directly. Kant’s is the first truly detailed exposition in Western philosophy to elucidate why and how we are trapped by the very structure of our own cognitive faculties, and therefore unable to use reason to fully resolve the metaphysical questions of God, immortality, and freedom.

In Part II, we’ll review Kant’s important distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, clarify the meaning of transcendental idealism as it applies to his work, and also analyze a mahAvAkya in terms of Kant’s philosophy.


12 thoughts on “The Relevance of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism to Advaita Vedanta, Part I

  1. Excellent post, Charles! I once attempted to read ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ but gave up after a few pages and have subsequently relied upon secondary analyses.

    I have written about his explanations of why we can never perceive reality in a couple of my books but I was not aware of the other correspondences with Advaita and look forward to the next installment!

    Incidentally, you (or at least others) may not be aware of the book ‘An Advaitic View of Kantian Philosophy’ by Swami Shantidharmananda Saraswati’, ISBN 81-7835-107-2. (Buy from Amazon US, Buy from Amazon UK). I haven’t read it unfortunately (slapped wrist) so cannot comment on its worth. It does seem to have a lot of material that is not directly related to Kant, and the penultimate chapter is titled ‘How Sanatana view can correct Kant’…

    Best wishes,

    • Thanks, Dennis. No question about it — Kant is a tough slog. The Austrian writer, Robert Musil, has an amusing anecdote in one of his novels, where a young student attempts the Critique for the first time. After a half-hour, he is sweating profusely, and has reached … page two. 🙂

      I wasn’t aware of that book on Kantian Philosophy by a traditional Swami. I’ll have to check it out and compare what he is saying about Kant and Advaita. Thanks for the reference!


  2. Thank you Charles – and also Dennis – for an elucidating and stimulating presentation of Kant’s philosophy, particularly in relation to the tenets of Advaita Vedanta – and more to come, as you have promised!

    K.A. Krishnaswamy Iyer, once a mentor and associate of Satchidanandendra Saraswati, has a long chapter in his book (‘Vedanta or the Science of Reality’) where he discusses and partly (or mostly) criticizes several Western philosophers, among them Plato, Hegel, Kant (even Adorno).

    Also, it is noteworthy that the German philosopher Fichte, who was a Kantian, took a new direction having the latter’s notion of ‘thing-in-itself’ as a centerpiece in his philosophy. He extended the meaning of this notion by tying it with Consciousness and subjectivity (‘intersubjectivity’) and self-awareness. Was that not a master-stroke? So we have (after Fichte), noumenon=Consciousness. He, however, gave this concept a mostly sociological dimension (I received this piece of information from Francis Lucille).

    ‘Ultimately, freedom is a mystery, and takes us beyond even will as the name for the thing-in-itself – Schopenhauer (’

    (From an interchange in my own blog):

    An interlocutor: ‘As for Kant being consistent with Vedanta, since Kant only lived little more than 200 years ago there’s no chance that Vedanta agrees with him, perhaps he agreed with Vedanta. 😉 Of course there could be parallels, but his philosophy was so tied up with his special technical terminology…’
    Me: ‘So, science speaks about relationships between and among phenomena (technically a Buddhist and advaitic notion). Also, “that which is” is the same as the Kantian unknowable ‘thing in itself’. Right? Kant announced the end of ‘dogmatic’ metaphysics before Nietzsche announced the death of God. Then Wittgenstein arrived and announced the end of everything except language (games).’

    A final point: Though ‘thing-in-itself’ is also frequently written in a plural form, would it not be more correct to use only the singular? The noumenon=Reality is One, not a multiplicity.

    • Hi Martin,

      Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed Part I. I haven’t read *Vedanta or the Science of Reality*, so will have to add that one to the pending list as well, although it does not appear to be readily available anymore.

      My knowledge of Fichte is very limited, and perhaps influenced by my reading of Schopenhauer. As you may know, Schopenhauer, who was also a Kantian, loathed Fichte with a passion only exceeded by his hatred of Hegel. 🙂 But if Fichte’s position is that noumenon=Consciousness, then I agree that was a master stroke. I’ll have to take a closer look at his work when I get time.

      On your point about thing-in-itself being more appropriately singular rather than plural, I agree that Noumenon=One and therefore singular is more correct. In fact, I think this ties clearly back to Kant’s position on the unity of consciousness, which I will discuss in Part III of the series. However, I would also note that Kant does not deny the ordinary “reality” of so-called external objects (things-in-themselves) as they appear in our perceptions. So he probably uses a plural construction in order to maintain consistency with Locke’s prior discussions on representations, etc.

      Best Regards,

  3. Interesting!

    Charles: “However, I would also note that Kant does not deny the ordinary “reality” of so-called external objects (things-in-themselves) as they appear in our perceptions.” Is this an indication of a distinction along the lines of paramArtha-vyavahAra, then?!

    Your interlocutor, Martin: “As for Kant being consistent with Vedanta, since Kant only lived little more than 200 years ago there’s no chance that Vedanta agrees with him, perhaps he agreed with Vedanta.” This raises an interesting point. Is it a general belief that Vedanta is a purely historical ‘system’, ‘set in concrete’?

    Certainly it is true that traditonal teachers refer back to scriptures for supporting argument, and it must be the case that what is ‘real’ now has always been so. But surely a j~nAnI can reliably speak ‘as a Vedantin’, from his/her own time and knowledge of more recent science and philosophy? So that it would be perfectly acceptable to say that ‘Vedanta’ agrees with Kant (or not)?

    • Dennis,

      “Is this an indication of a distinction along the lines of paramArtha-vyavahAra, then?!”

      Yes! When I discuss Kant’s views on space and time in the second and third part of the article, you’ll see that the essence of Kant’s position is that space and time are only valid in the context of transactional reality and therefore not truly Real. His view is very much consistent with the paramArtha-vyavahAra teaching of Advaita.


  4. Thanks Charles – and Martin and Dennis – for this interesting discussion, and prompting me to starting re-reading “The Science of Reality”

    From my cursory reading of western philosophy, would I be right in saying that they have primarily, even exclusively focused on the nature of knowledge and of the reality of the external world that we perceive. What they seem not to have done (please correct me if I am wrong) is to examine the nature of the subject, the ego itself; it takes as self-evident the ego / mind.

    By contrast, Vedanta does exactly this through its five sheaths and three states analyses.

    “The highest reality is the Pure Consciousness of sleep, and whatever is not to be found in Pure Consciousness must be only of a contingent or empirical nature and not absolutely real. Hence it necessarily follows that time, space, causality, change, duration, movement, appearance of things, occurrences of events are all but the empirical expression of Life whose real nature as Pure Consciousness is beyond the understanding” – Vedanta, or the Science of Reality.

    Paraphrasing Gaudapada, first is projected the jiva who then projects the world. Though this perhaps is not a causal sequence – the arising of the ego, concomitantly necessitates the arising of the non-ego, the other – all on the substratum, the “rope” of pure consciousness.

    Best wishes,

    • Hi Venkat,

      Thanks for your comment/question. I’d say your take on western philosophy is basically correct, although it depends on what era of philosophy we’re talking about. Going back to the classical Greek philosophers, for example, we find the concept of nous, usually translated as mind or intelligence. Descartes is probably the first western philosopher to attempt clear thinking about the thinking subject, but as we know, he famously proposed a system that is utterly dualistic rather than nondual. In my opinion, Schopenhauer was the first western thinker to “get” the Upanishads, and to focus on the subject in his analysis. His master work, *The World as Will and Representation* (which I hope to write about as well), basically divides equally into an examination of “external” reality (i.e., representation) and the subject itself (i.e., will), without falling into the trap of dualism. But you’re quite right that nothing in western philosophy goes as far as the five sheaths or three states analyses. For my money, Gaudapada was ahead of all of them and philosophy has not yet caught up with Vedanta. 🙂


      • From my blog (Unanimous Tradition’) – hoping this is not out of place:

        Concerning the theory of Forms or Ideas in Plato – and by extension that of perception – we can find an interesting parallel in the account given by Shankara’s advaita Vedanta. The Idea of ‘the Good’ (the supreme Idea in Platonic metaphysics) would correspond to the highest ontological principle in advaita: Atman-Brahma; in fact, there is only one ontological principle, one primary, or ultimate, reality, in both philosophers . Objects of external perception are illusory in both accounts. In Plato they are only images (ikones) of Ideas, which alone are real, whereas in Shankara these objects are also just representations in the mind, phenomena, and described as ‘names and forms’. For example, ‘pot’ is just a name, its underlying ‘substance’ being only clay (this is only an analogy or illustration). There are no objects, and no world, having a separate (objective!) existence, the only reality being Atman-Brahman.

        Further clarification – from Tom McFarlane in Quora :

        ‘… according to Plato at least, the sensible objects we experience are not separate things apart from some inaccessible world of intelligible forms, but they are instantiations of the forms themselves. In other words, to the extent that our experience is intelligible at all, we are directly experiencing forms, which ultimately emanate from the One. This understanding of Plato is also reflected in the Platonic tradition by Proclus and Plotinus, for example.’

        • Martin,

          Excellent commentary, thank you. And not out of place at all! A. N. Whitehead said that all of western philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. He did have a point. There is little that Plato’s mind did not touch upon, so it makes sense that there would be parallels with Shankara. Instead of monastic centers, Plato started an academy, etc. Both men were completely committed to the pursuit of Truth.

          Best Regards,

  5. Clearly the time has come for me to start to re-post my series on ‘an overview of western philosophy’. This material started out as part of one of my books but I subsequently removed it as being unsuitable. I posted most of it to Advaita Academy but never completed it. All of the old material has now been removed from that site as far as I can make out. Since the 5-year copyright is now expiring, I will start the series and keep step with the 5-years. First part in the next few days!

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